Safety of Meal Kits
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There are dozens of companies selling and shipping meal kits. Some of the most well-known are Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Marley Spoon. These companies develop recipes, plan meals, do the shopping, and ship the food to you. All you have to do is cook.
While these were popular before lockdown, there has been a large increase in demand because of the pandemic. This rapidly evolving market is not expected to go away.
Obviously, during the pandemic, it’s a way to avoid going to a grocery store. But that’s not the only reason people like these kits. Many folks like to cook but don’t want all the planning and shopping involved. Others like them because the recipe and choices offer variety. The cost per person is generally less than a comparable restaurant meal, but you have to do the cooking. Another reason people buy the kits is to improve their cooking skills.
For this convenience, you have less control over such things as the freshness of the ingredients and the temperature of the food as it travels to your door. While the meal kit industry has a good safety record, receiving shipped food can be a cause for concern and caution.
In the summer, the temperatures inside delivery trucks could get very high, and in winter, just the opposite, extreme cold. The boxes or shipping containers, dry ice, or gel packs must do the job of keeping the food safe. When selecting a company, look for and ask about how the food is insulated and packaged. Before ordering, ask how they will handle food that might be delivered at an unsafe temperate or is not safe to eat.
Several of these companies do a great job of providing directions for food safety after you get the shipment. This includes recommending appropriate refrigerator storage and minimum cooking temperatures. Some of the companies even offer to sell you a thermometer if you don’t already own one.
The Safe Plates team at N.C. Cooperative Extension offers this advice for making sure your meal kits are safe:
- Schedule your delivery on a day when someone will be home to store the food as soon as possible.
- If possible, arrange with the food company or shipper to deliver your box to a safe place in the shade to maintain the cold temperature longer.
- Inspect the box upon arrival for any damage such as holes, tears, signs of pests, and/or temperature abuse.
- Use a thermometer to verify the temperature when the food arrives. The food should be 41 degrees or below. Refrigerate after opening.
- Be alert to possible cross-contamination within the shipping box. Make sure that meat, fish, or poultry juices haven’t leaked onto any other ingredients, especially fruits and vegetables.
- Pay special attention to any recent recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks with the food products in your meal kits, since the batch number may not be present on the packaging and may be difficult to identify if it’s part of the recall/outbreak.
- Not every meal kit company provides food safety information. Follow best food safety practices when preparing these meals. This includes safe thawing, cooking to proper internal temperatures, prevention of cross-contamination, and good personal hygiene.
A thermometer is the only true way to tell if the food is safe. Just because it feels “cool-to-the-touch” does not mean the food is safe. Feeling cool just means it’s cooler than the air temperature. This isn’t a good indicator of food safety. Harmful bacteria can grow in temperatures as low as 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Perishable foods such as those containing animal products, pre-cooked vegetables and grains, and cut melons, tomatoes, or leafy greens should be tossed after four hours at room temperature.
For more information, check out a recent edition of Homegrown featuring Food Safety Tips for Home Meal Delivery Kits. Each month, N.C. Cooperative Extension produces the Homegrown series of videos about three different segments of NC life, including gardening, the kitchen, and the farm. They can be found on YouTube at NCSU Homegrown.
Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910.253.2610 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.